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Clay Shirky
associate teacher at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU

The greatest recent innovation in the understanding of networks is the Small Worlds pattern, discovered by Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz in 1998. The field of network analysis had built up many puzzles, from Milgram’s ‘Six degrees of separation’ pattern (how can a sparsely connected social network also have short chains of connection?) to the curious robustness of the internet against both damage and disconnection. In one stroke, Watts and Granovetter unified those problems and proposed an analytical solution for them by demonstrating a ‘clusters and bridges’ topology that cheats nature in exactly the way real world networks do (sparsely connected, short chains of contact, robust).

This model combines the study of the few highly connected nodes and the dense clusters they connect into a single discipline, and it does so in a way that is useful for physicists, biologists, engineers, and social scientists, thus improving the interdisciplinary valence of several previously disconnected fields.

The practical applications of this work are just beginning, but they already run from the design of power grids to networks of protein interactions to the design of online social networks. For many of us, the Small Worlds work marked the transition, for a large number of problems, from ‘Hmm. That’s weird.’ to ‘Oh! I see how that works’.

Clay Shirky is associate teacher at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he concentrates on the overlap of social networks and communications networks.